PLANO, Texas - Shannon Pluhowsky's last appearance at the U.S. Women's Open had all the twists and turns of a thrill ride at Six Flags Over Texas, but it did not end with the arms-raised, all-smiles souvenir photo one should expect from such an outing.
That honor instead went to United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer Liz Johnson of Deerfield, Illinois, who defeated Pluhowsky, 208-143, and hoisted the U.S. Women's Open trophy for the third consecutive time, before walking off the TV set in the event's coveted green jacket for the fifth time in her career.
Pluhowsky, a two-time major champion before the 2015 return of the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour, left the 2016 TV set in tears - a flood of emotion that was uncharacteristic of the quiet left-hander - but had been building over a half-dozen TV appearances that all ended without an official PWBA title.
"Obviously, it was a very disappointing ending to the U.S. Women's Open, where the lanes played a little differently than they did during the week, and our game plan just didn't work," said Pluhowsky, the 2006 USBC Queens champion and the winner at the 2014 Bowling Proprietors' Association of America Women's All-Star. "That came at the end of a rough summer and very grueling week at the U.S. Women's Open. I bowled well all year and made five shows and just never had any success on TV."
Both competitors are among the 115 bowlers at Plano Super Bowl this week for the 2017 edition of the event, and the storylines are eerily similar to a year ago.
Johnson again is the defending champion and on the verge of locking up the PWBA Player of the Year award, which would be her third consecutive.
Pluhowsky, who resides in Dayton, Ohio, again has one TV appearance to look forward to at the end of the week (Nationwide PWBA Rochester Open), regardless of how things go at the U.S. Open, but still carries the burden of being winless in three PWBA Tour seasons, despite being a consistent performer and top-15 presence in every statistical category.
She immediately followed the 2016 U.S. Women's Open loss with a fourth-place finish on the PWBA Lexington Open telecast.
There's a big difference in Pluhowsky's demeanor this week at Plano Super Bowl, and the while the 34-year-old southpaw would love to notch her first PWBA title, she is calm and focused only on the things she can control.
Pluhowsky is enjoying her birthday week in what she considers a "way better place mentally," though she'd likely prefer a little less of a roller-coaster ride than she experienced at last year's U.S. Women's Open in Addison, Illinois.
Last year, she was 30th after eight games of qualifying, 15th after 16 games and 10th after 24. Though she averaged just 185 in the cashers' round, she managed to hold onto the 24th and final spot in match play, sneaking in by just four pins as the lone left-hander.
In an unprecedented run during match play, Pluhowsky averaged nearly 212 on the way to a 13-10-1 record. She erased a 330-pin deficit and climbed from 24th place to the No. 1 seed for the finals.
"This is a long format and an event you can't win or lose on Day 1," said Pluhowsky, a 17-time Team USA member. "I just try to bowl clean games and shoot 200. You can't go out and try shoot 250. It was up and down all week. I ended up playing a part of the lane I don't usually play, and it worked. I started winning matches and just got into one of those zones where you know what you're doing, but you're really not thinking about it or over-analyzing it."
Sometimes, the best lessons are learned through losing, rather than in the winning moments.
Perhaps Pluhowsky's new outlook has to do with the security of her full-time job at Dayton's Capri Lanes or the fact that the PWBA Tour life doubles as quality time and priceless life experiences with her family - fellow Tour competitor Megan Kelly and their daughter, Autumn.
"Overall, it has been a consistent and successful year, and all I can do is keep putting myself in position to win," Pluhowsky said. "Off the lanes, having Autumn with us makes this experience even more special. It really puts things in perspective and allows us to step away from the bowling and enjoy a lot of fun things in all the cities we go to. She'll have a lot of great memories, and that's something you can't put a price tag on."
Pluhowsky and Kelly also have a 30-minute rule, which means that no matter how things go on the lanes, they have 30 minutes to let it go. That's a different outlook for Pluhowsky, who admits that in her younger days, she often held onto things for too long.
All competitors at the 2017 U.S. Women's Open will bowl 24 games at Plano Super Bowl over three days, before the field is cut to the top 38 for eight additional games of qualifying.
After 32 games, total pinfall will decide the 24 bowlers who advance to round-robin match play, and 56-game totals, including 30 bonus pins for each win, will determine the five players for Sunday's live television finals, which will air on CBS Sports Network at noon Eastern.
The championship rounds of the 2017 PWBA Orlando Open, PWBA St. Petersburg-Clearwater Open and Nationwide PWBA Rochester Open will be taped at Super Bowl on Sunday for broadcast on CBS Sports Network on Aug. 15, Aug. 22 and Aug. 29, respectively.
"The first time I made TV this year (at the season-opening QubicaAMF PWBA Sonoma County Open), I felt I bowled well, made much better shots and had fun, and, although it didn't happen for me that time, I know it will come," said Pluhowsky, who finished third at the event, losing to Brandi Branka in the semifinal. "I think I had been trying too hard and should've been worried about one shot at a time, rather than one game at a time. Now, I also know I can't think about the past, good or bad. I have to keep thinking positive, and I believe that will lead to a better outcome."
All qualifying and match play rounds of the U.S. Women's Open can be watched live on Xtra Frame, the online bowling channel of the Professional Bowlers Association.